California Nurses Warn Supreme Court Decision Could Starve Unions

Rendon California death threats single-payer (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

A powerful California nurses’ union warned that a coming U.S. Supreme Court decision, which could stop unions from requiring non-union employees to pay dues, could starve unions to death.

The 86,000-member California Nurses Association (CNA) demonstrated at seven hospitals across the state on Feb. 23 to build support for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against the plaintiffs in Janus vs. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and preserve a current union rule that requires non-union employees in unionized organizations to pay “fair share” or “agency” fees that approximate the union’s dues.

Bay Area public radio station KQED reported that CNA spokesperson Margarita Harrington told a group at San Mateo Medical Center in the heart of Silicon Valley, “If suddenly people just stop paying dues, then how will the union be able to sustain itself?” She added, “It’s sort of like they’re gonna starve the union. And then it eventually impacts us.”

The fight is reverberating nationwide.

Mark Janus is a child support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, whose job is to fight for the rights of very young children in the government run social welfare safety net. He wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune in which he argued, “The union voice is not my voice. The union’s fight is not my fight.”

Janus complained the Illinois union contract forced him to fund a union that is not “working totally for the good of Illinois government.” He emphasized that Illinois’ union “supported candidates who put Illinois into its current budget and pension crisis. Government unions have pushed for government spending that made the state’s fiscal situation worse.”

Mr. Janus filed a lawsuit to stop automatic paycheck deductions of about $45 per month for a union local branch of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSME) without his permission. The Janus v. AFSME suit soon became a class action that would affect employees in 22 other states that allow unions to take “fees,” despite individuals refusing to join a union.

The Supreme Court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1997 that government employees, like Janus, who do not join a union could be compelled to pay “fair share” or “agency fees” to unions to negotiate collective bargaining contracts to covers all public employees. The justices reasoned that such fees would help to reduce labor strife and the prospect that non-union members benefiting as collective bargaining “free-riders.”

But the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Janus’s challenge to the constitutionality of the fee on Feb. 26. Eight of the nine justices on the Court have heard oral argument on the issue twice. The court failed to resolve the issue in early 2016 in Friedrichs v. California Teachers’ Association. Most observers expected the plaintiffs to prevail with the 5-4 conservative majority, but then Justice Antonin Scalia died, and the Court deadlocked on a 4 to 4 tie vote.

The Court decision, which is expected around June, will be determined by the court’s newest Associate Justice, Neil Gorsuch. Confirmed to the Court less than a year ago, Gorsuch, as a federal judge never ruled on a labor case involving union dues. But he has a reputation as a proponent of conservative textualism for interpreting the U.S. Constitution.


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